Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Max Yasgur and the Woodstock Music Festival

Study for Max Yasgur life statue

 by Bill Osmundsen

                                       Back in August of 1969 one of those once-in-a-lifetime events occurred, the Woodstock Music Festival.  Well, you probably thought that's where it was held plain and simple. Woodstock, had always attracted Artist's of all sorts and the name also has a nice ring to it.  Nope, for a variety reasons it couldn't be held there, so the site was moved to Wallkill about 40 miles away. Plans for this location were blocked by town residents and in a last ditched effort the proposed venue was offered to dairy farmer Max Yasgur.  Max had a pretty big operation supplying most of the milk to Sullivan County, NY.      
If you are familiar with farmers with milk cows or cattle you would know they eat a lot a grass and hay, so Max had several large acreages of alfalfa fields and he agreed to lease this land for the concert for $75,000.00.  The land was in nearby Bethel, NY and like Wallkill there was serious opposition to holding the concert in the town. Max won out.     
 The festival organizers told Max, the Town and authorities to expect about 50,000 people, they did however sell 186,000 tickets for $6. apiece.  New York radio stations had announced a 'free concert'  and with the arrival of this mass of people, soon the fences, in place, were knocked down and finally removed, which truly did make the concert 'free' for the half-million people who actually attended the 3-day concert.   It was estimated that about another million people were attempting to attend the concert but were stuck either on the New York State Thruway or on the winding and rural roads of upstate New York.     

 Despite a day or so of rain, drug overdoses, one resulting in a death, the media reported the concert a great success and and a major event for 'the age of Aquarius'. Time Magazine called 'Woodstock' "The greatest peaceful event in history". 

 Because of the deluge of rain the performers feared being electrocuted. The crowd chanted: 'No Rain' but 5 inches fell and during a thunderstorm Joan Baez sang, 'We shall overcome'. Richie Havens made-up his song 'freedom' on the spot, to fill-in stage time. And, Jimi Hendrix performed the 'Star Spangled Banner' to close the show.  The New York Post, Rock music critic,  reported that rendition as "the greatest single moment of the Sixties".

 The logistics of the event:- the population of Bethel rose to the third largest city in New York. No one was prepared for such an onslaught. Food and sanitation facilities were sparse; Governor Rockefeller declared it a disaster area. The Hog Farm Free Kitchen fed up to 190,000 people, 5,000 at a time. A Jewish Community Center made sandwiches with 200 loaves of bread, 40 pounds of meat and two gallons of pickles all distributed by Catholic Nuns. The hungry crowd burnt down a hamburger stand which tried to make an excessive profit by raising their price from 25 cents a piece, to one dollar. But considering 500,000 people showed up, the crowd joyous, exuberant and civil and the event, which has been recreated, has never been this successful.

 As the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival approaches, it will begin on August 15th, 2019 and last until the 18th of August, if it mirrors the 1969 event. A lot of people are reflecting on the event, certainly many feel it was the greatest group music event of the twenth century.  The Bethel Woods  Center for the Arts, which opened in 2006, in fact is a living tribute to the 'festival' and is situated on the very hill overlooking the festival field.  There is a beautiful Concert Pavilion, at the 'Woodstock' location and a Museum Campus overlooks the festival field. This was, of course, all of Max Yasgur's alfalfa field which provided the 'only place' offered for this great happening.

Well, it's said, that 'Hippy' was derived from 'hipster', a term used to describe Beatniks. It was something I saw grow out of Greenwich Village of the early 60's. I had a New Jersey Art Gallery in 1967-8 and the location had previously been a Music Shop, so I inherited some of the musicians who were mostly into Bluegrass. They would roll-up at the end of the day in a 1938 convertible, that the music store owner owned and unload into my gallery their instrument cases, one case always absent an instrument but filled with Sangria Wine. They would play for a couple of hours and the day would end. Sometimes we would migrate onto New York's, Greenwich Village.  That all ended all too soon and with draft and Vietnam, I elected to join the Navy and that's where I spent August 15-18, 1969 in Norfolk VA.